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May 18, 2022

USCIS Records Reveal Systemic Disparities in Asylum Decisions

Government records received by Human Rights First from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum office through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show years-long, systemic disparities in asylum adjudications based on the nationality of the asylum seeker and the asylum office handling the case. These records, which include data for fiscal year (FY) 2016 through the end of May 2021, show:

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  • By the end of the Trump administration, asylum office grant rates had fallen from 44 percent in FY 2016 to 28 percent in FY 2020 with even more significant declines in grant rates for people fleeing persecution from Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and South Asia — underscoring longstanding concerns about disparate treatment of people who seek asylum in the United States.
  • By FY 2020, asylum office grant rates had plummeted for people seeking protection from countries from which many refugees are fleeing compared to FY 2016, including El Salvador (73 percent drop), Haiti (70 percent drop), and Venezuela (57 percent drop), resulting in the needless referral of cases to the immigration courts that could have been resolved by the asylum office. Indeed, immigration judges granted asylum in two-thirds of cases referred from the asylum office that were decided in FY 2021, and immigration court asylum grant rates remain higher for many countries than before the asylum office. 
  • Existing disparities in grant rates between asylum offices widened during the Trump administration. Between FY 2017 and 2020, the New York asylum office’s average grant rate was six times lower than the San Francisco asylum office — double the grant rate discrepancy compared to FY 2010 to 2014. Some asylum offices recorded shockingly low asylum grant rates. The New York asylum office grant rate dropped to 5 percent in FY 2020, and the Boston asylum office grant rate declined to 8 percent in the first part of FY 2021.
  • Asylum grant rates for nationals of the same country vary significantly by asylum office location, resulting in arbitrary referrals of cases to the immigration courts that could have been granted by the asylum office. In FY 2020, for example, the Los Angeles asylum office granted asylum to just 18 percent of Cameroonian applicants — a rate more than two-and-a-half times lower than the national asylum office average for Cameroon; the Houston asylum office did not grant any of the 14 asylum applications of Nicaraguans it decided that year compared to national asylum office average of 44 percent for Nicaragua; and the New York asylum office’s 11 percent grant rate for Venezuelan applicants was nearly three times lower than the (very low) 30 percent asylum office national average for Venezuela.

The current administration must urgently act to address racial, nationality, and asylum office-based disparities in asylum adjudication. USCIS should ensure that cases qualifying for refugee protection are actually granted by the asylum office, rather than being referred for immigration court adjudications. The over-referral of cases exacerbates already years-long delays for many asylum seekers and needlessly contributes to court backlogs for cases that are overwhelmingly later granted by immigration judges. These reforms are particularly crucial given new asylum process rules, set to go into effect at the end of May 2022, under which more asylum seekers would undergo initial, full asylum adjudications by the asylum office.

In addition, USCIS should immediately act to upgrade its data collection practices. The records released to Human Rights First overwhelmingly fail to disclose the race or ethnicity of the applicant — a question all asylum seekers must answer on the asylum application. As President Biden’s January 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity acknowledges, the “lack of data [disaggregated by race] . . . impedes efforts to measure and advance equity.”

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